Wednesday, July 26, 2006

An open mind

When colonial India gained independence from Britain in 1947, it was split into Hindu-oriented India and Muslim-oriented Pakistan. Kashmir was overwhelming Muslim, and would have chosen Pakistan, given the choice, but the Hindu maharajah at the time, hoping for independence, chose India at the last minute. Pakistan and India have fought three wars over Kashmir, and there's an active insurgency that concentrates their ire on the 'occupying' Indian military force here, currently somewhere between 400,000 and 800,000 soldiers. I saw an Indian soldier using his rifle as a club to beat on a truck driver who didn't stop fast enough. It's this kind of daily humiliation, and much worse, that creates so much animosity towards the military here.
I had no plans to come to Kashmir until I read that there were 600,000 tourists here last year, virtually all of them Indian. (If you're going to swim with sharks, it's better to be in a big school of fish.) A couple of weeks ago, though, there were some grenades tossed into Indian tourist buses, which is the first time that tourists were targeted. Several people were killed and it generated massive publicity throughout India. So when I got here, expecting to see lots of other targets, uh, tourists, I was a little surprised. It's hard to pick out Indian tourists, but there are damn few, and I've seen nine Western tourists in the five days I've been here. Now there aren't enough tourists to warrant a grenade attack, so I'm safe all the same.
My first day walking around town there was a strike called in protest of the 'Israel and U.S.' bombing of Lebanon. Two people had suggested I not tell people that I was American, which feels very odd. I tried being Australian for a while, until some kid asked me who our best cricket player was, so I gave that up. Sure I might get blown up or shot, but at least I won't get embarrassed. Most people realized that I don't make foreign policy decisions for the U.S., and they were warm and friendly. But I was playing with a little kid when an old man stepped between us and sort of shooed me down the road. I heard him say something about America, and I have to say that I felt pretty vulnerable at that point.
I spent another day with Younis, and this whole conversion to Islam shtick has gotten a little irritating. I don't think I mind him trying to convert me, I'm just bothered that he's not very good at it. A good salesman is so smooth you don't know you're being sold, but Younis is clubbing me over the head with it. His intentions were good, though.
I have learned quite a bit about Islam, and it appears that Mohammed's teachings have been corrupted by fundamentalists around the world in the same way as Jesus' teachings have been. And like the teachings of Jesus and the Buddha, Mohammed talked incessantly about being kind, modest, and attentive to people's feelings. Muslim hospitality is renowned to anyone who's spent time in a Muslim country, though you'd never know it by watching CNN. (I was stunned by the friendliness and hospitality of Syrians when I was there in 1992, after never hearing a single positive sentence about that country growing up.)
Younis looks, quite frankly, like he'd fit in with the Taleban, and I was apprehensive to ask him what he thought of them. I was happy to hear that he doesn't approve of their tactics in the least. He says that Muslims aren't allowed to harm even an earthworm, so the terrorism that we all, unfortunately, associate with Islam just isn't the true teaching of Islam. Interestingly, "jihad" means "struggle," and can refer to the inner struggle to lead a holy life. It doesn't mean Holy War, which has a Christian origin and comes from the Crusades.
But I don't expect that one letter will open anyone's eyes to the peaceful nature of Islam's true teachings. Just like Christianity takes on many forms around the world, so does Islam. You can lump all Muslims together for your convenience, but with 1 billion Muslims on the planet, any generalizations you make are likely to crumble on closer inspection.
Too much love,
Only one photo collage today. How much do I love these kids?! These were all taken at the same place, but look at the variety of faces: